BANNU, Pakistan -- Years after being displaced by a large-scale military operation, tens of thousands of Pashtuns continue to live in limbo even after a majority of their fellow North Waziristan residents have returned home.
They were among the more than 1 million civilians displaced by Zarb-e Azab, a massive military operation launched in 2014 to reclaim Pakistan's northwestern North Waziristan tribal district from militant control. For more than a decade, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups had turned the mountainous region into a global headquarters for terrorist organizations.
Shakirullah, who goes by one name only, remembers the June day in 2014 when they were suddenly told to leave their village in Shawal, a picturesque valley that straddles North Waziristan and Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Paktia.
“Most of us were forced to leave with just the clothes on our backs,” he said, recounting how most members of the more than 3,000 families displaced from Shawal walked for nearly 100 kilometers to the nearby city of Bannu. Some walked into Afghanistan’s neighboring Paktia and Khost provinces.
“It was a huge blow for the impoverished residents of Shawal,” he said. “Many of us still rent houses in Bannu and the nearby city of Dera Ismail Khan [in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province].”
Waliullah Wazir, another displaced resident of Shawal, says his family is desperate to escape the scorching heat of Bannu and return to the cool mountains of Shawal.
“We request that the government quickly send us back. We are literally being burned by the heat here,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. “We don’t have electricity or running water, and we are not used to this heat, which we have endured for four years.”
Wazir says Shawal’s residents will soon begin protests if authorities fail to help return them to their homes.
Malik Fasen Khan, a tribal leader from Shawal, says that as a first step toward their rehabilitation, authorities should at least help them harvest pine nuts from the region’s forests. Shawal, along with other regions in Waziristan and part of southeastern Afghanistan, still has sizeable pine nut forests.
“The government must facilitate members of each family to harvest their share of pine nuts because it will help earn money for their families,” he said.
The estimated 3,000 displaced families from Shawal are part of 14,369 families still awaiting government permission and assistance in returning to North Waziristan. Government figures show that a total of 107,335 families were displaced from the region in June 2014, when the Pakistani military launched Zarb-e Azab. Authorities say that, out of these families, 92,966 have returned to their villages and towns.
Those still waiting to go home include some 350 families hoping to return to Darpakhel Sarai, near the regional capital, Miran Shah.
“What sins have we committed that they are not letting us back into our houses?” asks Salma, a housewife. “We ask the authorities to let us go home.”
Zarwena, another female Darpakhel resident, says her husband, their six daughters, and two sons long to go back to their village.
“It would be better to live in tents than live in this heat [in Bannu],” she told Radio Mashaal.
Ihsan Dawar, a spokesman for the government’s FATA Disaster Management Authority, says his organization is on standby to help the remaining North Waziristan residents return to their homes, provided they get the go-ahead from the Pakistani military.
“We are prepared to facilitate their return, but the military needs to give us the security clearance to initiate it,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Umar Daraz Wazir’s reporting from Bannu, Pakistan.
Editor's note: The first version of this story named FATA Disaster Management Authority's spokesman as Rasool Dawar. His name is Ihsan Dawar.